I owe the title Free Booze Tonight to the Cold War, country music, and an old friend named Rob. I’ve always heard that coming up with a book title is one of the toughest tasks a writer faces. I even heard a writer once say that if he had a good title, he’d write a book to go with it. I understood exactly what he meant. Free Booze Tonight, though, was the rare exception for me. I knew the title before I had finished the first chapter.
It all started with Rob, a journalist and crooner with an affinity for country, rock, and gospel.
I’d met Rob while working for The Stars & Stripes, the newspaper for the U.S. forces stationed overseas. The European bureau for Stripes, as we called it, was headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany, and my wife and I had moved to a village just outside Darmstadt after I’d landed the job as a reporter. Rob’s wife, Stephanie, was a photographer at Stripes, and they had an apartment down the street from us.
This was in the early 1980s, when The Wall still divided Berlin, and the U.S. Army was worried about the Russians crashing through the Fulda Gap and rolling across Western Europe. If it hadn’t been for the threat of a Russian invasion, I doubt there would have been much call for an extensive U.S. presence in Europe—and certainly no need for a U.S. newspaper. So, the Cold War was awful in countless ways, but it got me to Germany, and that’s where I met Rob.
This was before satellite TV or cell phones. In fact, we didn’t have a television set or even a telephone in our apartment, and the only radio station we listened to was the Armed Forces Network. So, we tended to make our own entertainment, which often meant hooking up with Rob and Stephanie. It gave us a lot of time to discuss the important things in life, like the real meaning of some country songs.
Rob was a fine guitar player and a damned good singer, and no stranger to church choirs. He’d also played some at the Army and Air Force NCO clubs in our area.
In Rob’s view, the madcap world of part-time honky tonk musician had a lot in common with playing in the church. Whether you’re serving shots or selling salvation, he said, if the seats are empty, you’re going out of business. You’ve got to do something to draw the folks in—and good music helps.
I can’t say that I was thinking especially of Rob when I began writing Free Booze Tonight. But as I started thinking of a title, I remembered his advice. I figured, if I was writing a book about finding salvation and happiness in a dive bar, what better way to draw readers than by saying, “Hey there, can I interest you in Free Booze Tonight?”